In the American public school system, the quality of the education a child will get isn’t based on their intelligence, willingness to learn, or the teachers assigned to their classrooms. More often than not, it’s based on their zip code. Where a child grows up will have a major impact on their outcomes, largely due to the cycle of poverty.

Some American public schools are excellent. They have the resources needed to help students succeed and can provide additional challenges or help as needed. Other public schools struggle to help their students meet minimum expectations, but not for lack of trying.

In addition to schools lacking resources, students living in poverty have to overcome many more obstacles than their peers to succeed. For this reason, poverty has shaped the American education system and led to significant inequality.

How Household Income Affects School Quality

Public schools are largely funded by taxes — specifically, by property taxes. Property taxes vary from state to state and in individual towns, but they are based on the value of the land and buildings on each lot. Higher property values translate into higher income for schools, leading to better funding and outcomes in wealthy areas.

When families with children are looking for a home to buy or rent, school district quality often plays a major role in their decision. Typically, homes located in better school districts (well-funded school districts, that is) have a much higher price tag, preventing people living in poverty from sending their children to well-funded schools. Middle-class and wealthy families can generally ensure that their children will go to a good school.

Families living in poverty have few choices when it comes to where they live and where they send their children to school. While wealthy families can be choosy about their school districts, or even opt out of the public school system and send their kids to private school, poor families must accept the schools wherever they can afford to live. Some children must attend school when experiencing homelessness.

The Effect of Poverty on Learning

In addition to affecting school funding, poverty often affects children’s educational success directly. Some children do not have access to nutritious food at home and struggle to focus due to hunger. They might not have a quiet place to study, stable internet access, or resources to help them when they are struggling.

Many children living in poverty also live in unsafe areas or do not have stable housing. 30% of the US homeless population is made up of families with children. Whether they are living in a hotel, a shelter, in a car, or on the streets, children without stable housing often miss school regularly, causing them to fall behind.

Chronic stress makes it much harder for students to succeed. When a family is just trying to survive, thriving is a far-off dream. Doing well in school can help lift a child out of the cycle of poverty, but the stressors that go along with growing up in survival mode make this an incredibly difficult task.

The Cycle of Poverty Continues

Children who grow up in poverty, regardless of their intelligence and drive, have the odds stacked against them. Breaking the cycle of poverty is possible, but it is incredibly difficult for families and individuals, as support systems are inadequate and the inequalities within the school system perpetuate the cycle. Even systems like tax laws have inequalities built in that prevent people from being able to buy property and improve their situation.

Those born into poverty simply do not have the advantages and head-start of their well-off peers. If they are unable to overcome the odds and catch a lucky break, they are likely to continue the cycle into adulthood and as they raise their own children.

The cycle of poverty is oppressive and unrelenting, affecting both individuals and the community as a whole. It also harms the economy, preventing talented people from getting the training they need to join competitive fields.

Potential Solutions: Helping Schools Ensure Educational Equality

Education is one of several solutions needed to help lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately, it’s hard to break the cycle when a child is attending an underfunded school and struggles to focus due to a lack of food, support, and other resources. Although there are certainly some bad teachers at underfunded schools, that’s not the main problem. The main problem is a lack of resources and the ability to fully support students living in poverty.

To improve both the overall quality of education in the United States and reduce poverty, supporting schools in areas with high poverty rates will be essential. As long as schools rely on property taxes for their funding, the gap between the rich and the poor will only become wider and wider.